Amid brouhahas over make-believe Barbie maps and bomber jacket insignias in Top Gun: Maverick, the Pentagon will now no longer work with filmmakers that allow China to censor their films, and a GOP lawmaker is pushing for even stricter crackdowns on film censorship from the United States’ main economic rival. 

But free speech advocates question why there’s not similar outcry over the Defense Department’s own shaping of films, whereby the Pentagon changes movie scripts in exchange for providing studios access to taxpayer-funded military machinery. In some cases, the Pentagon is potentially pitching story ideas to Hollywood studios, according to Air Force documents obtained by The Lever.

The Motion Picture Association — the powerful film studio lobbying group that claims to be committed to “free speech and free expression unencumbered by government interference” — isn’t publicly fighting to stop either sort of censorship. In fact, behind the scenes, the group lobbied against the new anti-Chinese censorship policy, likely because it might hurt international revenues, and has actively promoted stronger connections between Hollywood and the Pentagon. 

Critics say this is a problem, since in a time of rising international tensions and the growing might of the military industrial complex, it’s more important than ever to protect viewers from propaganda that can sway public opinion on the U.S.’ various foreign interventions.

The new Pentagon policy, which was part of the 2023 Defense Department funding bill and implemented last summer, bars the Defense Department from working on film projects where there is “demonstrable evidence” that the project will comply with Chinese government demands to remove certain scenes or alter the film before it’s released in China. The rule came in the wake of a 2020 GOP bill authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that had similar provisions.

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The rule came amid outcry over a trailer shown in China for the 2022 blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick that had a Taiwanese flag patch removed from the main character’s jacket, since China refuses to recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Just after the rule was enacted, Cruz lambasted the recently released Barbie movie over a crayon-drawn map in the film showing China controlling a larger portion of the South China Sea than what is generally agreed upon in the international community

Rep. Mark E. Green (R-Tenn.) is now pushing a new bill, the SCREEN (Stopping Communist Regimes from Engaging in Edits Now) Act, which would build on the Defense Department policy by restricting government entities from cooperating on film projects that comply with Chinese censorship demands or involve officials from the Chinese Communist Party. 

Observers say that these particular policies are theoretically a good step towards protecting free expression, but note that such hardline policies could be hard to enforce because China is purposefully secretive about their censorship policies.

Experts say government officials would do better to focus on censorship efforts here at home: In order for film projects to get access to military locations and taxpayer-funded jets and battleships, directors have to agree to script reviews and edits by Defense Department and military officials that are often shrouded in secrecy.

“We know very little about how organizations like Homeland Security, the CIA and [Department of Defense] operate within the entertainment sector,” Roger Stahl, a professor of communication studies at the University Georgia, told The Lever. “They have formal offices that they acknowledge exist, but we don’t know about the internal workings of those offices.”

Rather than leaving such matters up to Defense officials or politicians, free speech advocates say the Motion Picture Association, which represents and lobbies on behalf of large movie studios, should lead the charge on film censorship matters.

“It would be better if the industry took this [censorship issue] on its own, but there is no clear financial benefit,” James Tager, deputy director at the free-expression advocacy group PEN America, told The Lever. 

Representatives of the Motion Picture Association declined to comment on the new Pentagon policy or censorship efforts by the Chinese government.

How China Censors Movies

Amid rising tensions between the United States and China over economic competitiveness and Taiwanese sovereignty, some politicians have resurfaced a long-simmering international debate over what China censors in order to allow Hollywood films into its country. Both sides have used the issue as a political football in recent years, but when Hollywood films first entered China it was widely celebrated as a cultural and financial win for both countries.

After decades of banning most forms of contact with the U.S., China agreed to allow a handful of classic movies, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Singin’ in the Rain, into the country as part of a cultural exchange in the early 1980s. 

In 1995, after a venture to put The Fugitive in Chinese theaters proved culturally and economically successful, China began allowing 10 Hollywood movies a year to be released in the country, said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Chinese politics and society. The quota expanded to 20 films in 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. 

Finally, in 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden spearheaded the U.S. China Film Memorandum of Understanding, which formally allowed films to be released in China under a revenue-sharing model that gave 25 percent of the gross box office sales to the production studios. 

The arrangement has proven to be a cash cow for Hollywood. In 2019 U.S. studios raked in nearly $840 million from the Chinese box office, which in total grossed nearly $8 billion last year. Paramount Global and a Disney subsidiary spent $6.7 million combined lobbying on the U.S. China film agreement and other market access issues in the first three quarters of 2023. 

Today, China allows roughly 34 foreign-made films to be screened in the country each year, said Rosen. But as part of the process, the country often demands changes to the films.

“The ones they censor are the ones they are willing to let in with some changes,” Rosen told The Lever

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What China censors is not always clear. In 2016, China formalized its censorship policies, saying it would censor films with gambling, drug use, and LGBTQ+ scenes, as well as films that question China’s territorial claims, among other taboo topics.

But two years later, all censorship controls were handed over to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department. The formal censorship guidelines were replaced by a system “reliant on rumor and innuendo to determine where the actual boundaries of censorship lie,” noted a 2020 report from PEN America.

China’s current censorship style is random, vague, and dependent on whichever propaganda official a studio is working with, said Tager, the PEN America deputy director. Tager said ghost stories are usually off limits, as well as same-sex kissing scenes found in films like Cloud Atlas, Star Trek Beyond, and Alien: Covenant. The 2022 children’s movie Minions: The Rise of Gru received a new ending in which Gru, the bad-guy protagonist, is captured and promises to lead a better life. And 1985’s Back To The Future was banned because time travel was deemed a “dangerous fictional element.” 

Tager said other off-limit topics include films that show any of the “Three Ts”: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square.

“What the Chinese Communist Party wants is its narratives reflected in major movies around the world — that the movie is consistent with the image that China is doing well as a country, it is a current and future leader, and that the [Chinese Communist Party] is doing a good job governing,” Tager said. “Governmental stability and harmony is more important than things like individual, civil, and political rights or freedom of expression.”

Tager said the ambiguity of Chinese censors makes the new Defense Department policy hard to enforce. He noted that because of market consolidation in the entertainment industry, Hollywood isn’t likely to push back on the country’s censorship efforts.

Disney, which now owns Marvel Studios, 21st Century Fox, Touchstone Pictures, LucasFilm, and other major media outlets, also operates multiple theme parks in China that could face repercussions if the movie studio voiced opposition to censorship demands. Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, DreamWorks Animation, Xfinity, Peacock, DirecTV, Telemundo, and other major brands, operates a billion-dollar Universal Studios theme park in China

Rosen, the University of Southern California professor, agreed that studios and their parent companies aren’t going to risk profits over a few movie scenes. 

“Film, in many ways, is a smaller part of their operation when it comes to China,” Rosen said. “No studio is going to be the first to take the lead because they know they’re going to be jumping over a cliff, and they’re going to be made an example of.”

What’s more, critics of recent political attempts to crack down on China censorship argue that such efforts could actually hurt U.S. soft power abroad and weaken Hollywood’s cultural influence. A former Navy SEAL-turned-stunt actor said recent legislative efforts could “undermine America’s ability to operate in the information battle space.” 

Finally, Chinese censorship policies could become less of an issue as audiences in the country lose interest in Hollywood films

While seven of China’s 10 most popular movies in 2012 were made by U.S. studios, not a single Hollywood movie cracked China’s top 10 in 2020 and 2023. Chinese films like the Wolf Warrior series and the Wandering Earth films have begun replacing Hollywood blockbusters. 

“[Chinese studios] are basically making Hollywood-style films with Chinese themes, and they resonate more with Chinese young people who can connect with it,” Rosen said. 

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How America Censors Movies

The Defense Department began working with the film industry in 1927, when it provided soldiers, pilots, planes, and other equipment for the movie Wings. Since then, according to one outside estimate, it has intervened in more than 2,500 entertainment productions.

Currently, all decisions over movies, shows, and video games that request military support are overseen by the Defense Department’s Entertainment Media office, which is housed at the Pentagon. 

Those decisions have enormous consequences for entertainment studios. The fighter jets used in Top Gun: Maverick cost more than $60 million each — but the studio behind the film was able to rent the planes for $11,000 an hour. The Navy actually broke its own flight training rules to make Tom Cruise look badass.

Glen Roberts, director of the Defense Department’s Entertainment Media Office, said his operation works on roughly 140 to 160 projects each year. As part of the process, Roberts says his office reviews the basic descriptions of each film and considers film studios’ requests for access, personnel, and equipment. If a project is approved, the studio will sign a contract with the Defense Department allowing officials to review scripts and make changes. 

“I don’t change scripts. What we will do is a ‘correction for the record.” Roberts said, noting adjustments range from correcting the type of aircrafts characters fly to protecting the identities of service members. “What we look for are four things — security, accuracy, policy and propriety.” 

But Stahl at the University of Georgia says Pentagon script changes go far beyond those four factors. In 2022, Stahl produced a documentary called Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA Took Hollywood that details decades of Defense Department influence in Hollywood films and television shows. After reviewing more than 30,000 documents, Stahl found that the Defense Department routinely censored scenes depicting war crimes, torture, institutional racism, lax control of nuclear weapons, military incompetence, failed U.S. policies, and other topics. 

“You could call it censorship, you can call it propaganda, but really it's just combing through the script and figuring out what plot points they have a problem with,” Stahl said. “There's an informal list of things that will trigger a denial.”

In one instance, Stahl found that the military convinced the studio behind the 2014 U.S. film Godzilla to remove a reference to the Hiroshima nuclear bomb attack, even though Godzilla was originally conceived as a metaphor for the danger of nuclear weapons. 

In another instance, a scene in the 2016 Afghanistan war film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was modified after Roberts’ office got involved. In the original scene, based on an account in the nonfiction book The Taliban Shuffle, a U.S. military transport vehicle plows into Afghan citizens at an intersection; in the revised version, the vehicle is operated by a non-governmental organization. Roberts said he was not aware of the script changes.

What’s more, Air Force documents obtained by The Lever suggest the military may be pitching Hollywood studios story ideas. The documents, which detail the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office’s 2019 activities, include sections labeled “Ideas and Pitches” that are almost entirely redacted, save for a couple references to project officers meeting with an Apple TV+ producer and other individuals “to discuss current projects and opportunities for collaboration.”

Roberts, who previously worked in the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, said the Defense Department does not pitch story ideas, and said he had no recollection about what is in the redacted sections.

“I think it was one of my colleagues from the Air Force who wrote that pitch deck or whatever, but that’s inaccurate,” Roberts told The Lever. “I don’t know why he did that. I would like to talk to him about it, but to me, it’s not anything that we do. And that’s generally always been our policy.”

“Nudging Us Over The Edge”

Roberts said it’s unfair to compare what the Defense Department asks studios to do in exchange for military assistance to how China censors foreign films.

“We’re not telling you what to put in a movie, or not to put in a movie,” said Roberts, who added that the Defense Department has worked with studios on movies that are critical of the military. “I don’t have a plot case, I correct the record when there’s errors in fact, but that’s it.” 

Nonetheless, directors and studios are having their work changed by the world’s most powerful countries in order to fit their dueling agendas, and the Motion Picture Association (MPA) has been conspicuously absent from the fight.

“Any studio that takes [these censorship issues] on really thrusts itself into the spotlight and takes reputational lumps for it,” said Tager at PEN America. “It’s why the MPA has to do it instead of just one studio, but the incentives for the MPA are clearly not there yet.”

The Motion Picture Association has a storied history of fighting for copyright and First Amendment protections. In 1954, it supported the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled states couldn’t censor film material, and in 1968 it instituted a voluntary film rating system to fend off “the possible intrusion of government into the movie arena.”

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But recently, the organization hasn’t taken a strong public stance against government censorship. Last year, the Motion Picture Association spent $2.6 million in the first three quarters lobbying on issues affecting the film industry, including the new Defense Department policy barring access to filmmakers who cooperate with Chinese censors. According to Deadline, the group lobbied against the Pentagon policy, since “there are studio concerns that the provision will only lead to a further reduction of exports.”

What’s more, instead of speaking out about Pentagon interference in Hollywood projects, in 2015 the group praised Congress for passing a measure that allowed film producers to pay the Defense Department for their services, saying the provision “builds on the cooperative environment between the Department of Defense and the film and television industry.”

Behind closed doors, however, the Motion Picture Association appears to still have concerns about governments manipulating films. In Oct. 2022, the Association wrote to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative that China’s censorship efforts were “opaque, unpredictable, and slow, often resulting in de facto discrimination against foreign content,” and that governments should provide “clear guidelines for self-classification” that ensures “equal treatment of all content regardless of origin.”

Free-speech advocates say what’s at stake isn’t just Hollywood profits and changing a few movie scenes. Public opinion on national and international conflicts, as well as the U.S.’ national identity, are often shaped by mass media. The films the Defense Department works on have even become powerful military hiring tools. When the first Top Gun film was released in 1986 after receiving substantial support from the Air Force, military recruitment spiked considerably, and the Air Force ran recruitment ads before screenings of the 2022 sequel.

“Recruitment is a great byproduct of what we do and hopefully we want people to be inspired and see the positives of military life, but I believe our job goes beyond that,” he said. “It’s a tough recruitment environment right now, but recruiting is not what we’re about.”

As the U.S. supports an ever-increasing list of controversial military interventions, swaying public opinion one way or the other could have far-reaching repercussions..

“This isn’t just a collection of script changes,” Stahl said in his documentary Theaters of War. “We’re inside of… this world created in the image of the military industrial complex. And with razor-thin margins in public support for some of these disastrous wars, the skewed image of the world might just be nudging us over the edge.”